Ultraspecialisti’s Italy telemedicine connects patients and doctors during the coronavirus crisis

By Chris Welsch

Vanesa Gregorc, an oncologist in Milan specialising in lung cancer, had been aware for a long time that some of her patients were traveling from other parts of Italy to see her.  Just when someone was suffering from life-changing stress, they were expending a lot of energy and resources to get care.

She thought there must be a better way. In 2015, she co-founded Ultraspecialisti, which works as a “virtual hospital.”

The company has grown into a sophisticated online platform with a network of doctors covering 24 specialisations. These professionals offer “telemedicine” no matter where patients live in Italy. The platform allows patients to upload medical records and imagery, such as X-rays and scans, to a secure online database. Videoconferencing enables patients to see the doctor. The initial consultation, at price of about €240, is less expensive and time-consuming than an appointment in person with a specialist.

Italy telemedicine accelerates change

Ultraspecialisti has also developed programmes to support rare diseases in collaboration with pharma companies and voluntary organisations, and it collaborates with universities in Milan and Barcelona on machine learning and artificial intelligence programmes.

The factors that have made this innovative social enterprise a success have been dramatically accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis, when hospitals have been overwhelmed, and patients with other health issues want to avoid exposure to medical settings where the risk of infection is higher.

“From the beginning it was our goal to break down the geographical barriers and time barriers that separate patients from the best care,” Vanesa says. “Today our solution has become a daily need.”

Ultraspecialisti is set up to help patients find the best possible specialist for their problems, and some of those specialists are extremely specific. For example, one of the 24 areas covered is oncology, which is further broken down into 30 sub-areas. Until COVID-19 struck, Ultraspecialisti had no general practitioners.

Expanding services in Italy telemedicine

“We had to widen our range of activities,” Vanesa says. “We added general practitioners, we connected to pharmacists, and we adapted to the needs of a hospital.” The Ultraspecialisti team managed to do this in the course of a week and added 50 doctors to its network to help during the emergency.

During the crisis, Ultraspecialisti first joined forces and offered its support to ASST Pavia, a hospital in the Milan area, and it is now also supporting a large hospital in Cefalù, Sicily.

Many doctors have been volunteering their services free, and Ultraspecialisti has also been offering some free and reduced-price services to help during the crisis.

“It’s a huge effort of solidarity in our region and country,” she says.

Ultraspecialisti was a finalist in the European Investment Bank Institute’s annual Social Innovation Tournament. The tournament supports entrepreneurs who are making an impact on social, ethical or environmental issues.

Looking toward the future, Ultraspecialisti is planning to expand rapidly, adding hospitals, collaborating with medical companies, and finding other ways to connect patients and doctors as efficiently and safely as possible during trying circumstances.

Vanesa says she’s not daunted by the challenge. “We think we can give even more.”